Jobbed: Are Wall Street Bonuses Really So Bad?

If you ask Manhattan real estate agent Julie Pham about Wall Street bonuses, she turns practically giddy. Pham is putting in plenty of late hours these days, and as bonus season heats up, she expects to get even busier. Ninety percent of her clients work in financial services. Already, they've started window-shopping for upgrades, classic prewar apartments and $3 million to $5 million pads. "Everyone is aware of the negative public reaction to the bonuses," she says. "But that hasn't made bankers more conservative with their purchases." And thank goodness, say real estate agents, financial planners, restaurateurs, and luxury-goods sellers.

Most Americans have expressed outrage over the magnitude of Wall Street bonuses, given the way the banks benefitted from federal bail-out money and turned profits with the help of government-backed low-interest loans. But the same bonuses are also providing hope to a variety of New Yorkers, from luxury retailers to waiters. Goldman Sachs announced on Thursday that it has set aside $16.2 billion for bonuses and compensation, a drop from the bank's 2007 record of $20.2 billion in bonus money. (On average, Goldman employees made $498,000 in bonuses and stocks in 2009, up from $317,000 in 2008.) Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, and J.P. Morgan Chase are handing out bonuses that match or exceed pre-recession levels. All of this is enough to make many Manhattanites optimistic that some of the cash will trickle down through the city's economy. Like the rest of the country, New York has suffered from foundering retail sales and the less-than-robust housing market. "It's not only that these people spend money on products. They also spend on services: maids, chefs, catering, and dog walkers," says Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute, a New York research firm.

The rest of the country may not be able to relate to what's considered a bargain among New York's financial community, but there are "deals" to be had throughout the tristate area. Yachts in all sizes and price ranges have returned to the market, many of them in foreclosure, says David Pugsley, vice president and general manager of Brewer Yacht Sales. Sales of luxury jewelry and watches fell by 40 percent last year, Pedraza says, leaving buyers room to negotiate prices. When banks such as Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns failed, many wealthy New Yorkers sold their second homes on Long Island and in surrounding areas. "When you're nervous about your job, the last thing you want to do is tie yourself into a second or third mortgage," says Pamela Liebman, president and CEO of The Corcoran Group. "People are now taking advantage of the value in those properties."

Even with the mantra of deals, deals, deals, many Wall Street types may not spend their bonus money as lavishly in 2010. It's true that this year's bonuses are expected to match or exceed pre-recession levels, but financial planners say their clients are being more prudent this time around. Often, bankers may need to replenish their cash cushion, beef up disability insurance, or map out a new budget that takes into account the amount of money they will receive in restricted stock in lieu of bonus cash. "Many financial things that went undone in 2008 will get restored," says Greg Olsen, a partner at Lenox Advisers, a New York financial planning firm. "People will invest more conservatively."

One hour north of New York City, in the seaside bedroom community of Westport, Conn., this attitude of spending and investing conservatively has already taken hold. There, Wells-Fargo Advisers senior vice president Howard Matson has been busy meeting with Wall Street clients as he's done for the past 26 years. But this year he's not dwelling on big-ticket toys. The large expenditures this year? Setting aside money for private schools and college funds. "In past years, where I would see the majority of a bonus allocated to a new- or vacation-home purchase," Matson says, "now clients may allocate one fourth of a bonus to a high-end purchase."

One quarter of a typical Wall Street bonus still translates into hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it's that heady amount that makes New York's luxury retailers so ecstatic. At this point, with all of the big banks having repaid their bailout money, the government has little oversight or recourse over the way they award bonuses. Regulators and politicians have succeeded in publicly shaming the banks into doling out more compensation in company stock rather than cash, but that still leaves bankers arguably well off. If a banker receives a $3 million bonus this year, Olsen says, he or she may receive $2.85 million of that in company stock. "Nobody's crying for the bankers," Olsen says. "But it doesn't go a long way after you pay your private-school tuition."

This slice of the bonus pie is what New York real estate agents, art dealers, luxury travel agents, boat brokers, and car dealers will be fighting over this winter and spring. Whoever succeeds in extracting that money will have to do so with discretion. Bankers know well enough not to flaunt their bonuses, given the public anger toward the financial sector and the country's persistently high unemployment rate. "The show-me piece of jewelry and show-me car has gone very out of style," Olsen says. "It isn't that the money isn't there. It's just that flashiness is pooh-poohed." Flashiness or understatedness—the style of the wealthy can always shift. New York's luxury market and the folks who live off it don't care, as long as Wall Street's in a buying mood.

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